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County prepares for possible epidemic

RIFLE – Just how ready are we in Garfield County? Suppose a major flu epidemic hit and a quarter of the population was out of commission? How would law enforcement and emergency managers handle it?Those were questions posed to a group of firemen, policemen, hospital administrators, public health and county government officials at a “tabletop” exercise Thursday in Rifle.The idea was to test emergency plans – prepared by various agencies – to see if they would work in a virtual emergency.Participants played out a scenario that involved massive system breakdown and growing numbers of people too sick to work or help others. Apparently, the very best response is for people to be prepared to help themselves in an emergency. (See breakout box – home preparedness kit).The scenario, presented by Steve Hilley, bioterrorism training coordinator with the Northwest Visiting Nurse Association, involved an outbreak of bird influenza in the county.A bird flu pandemic is not out of the realm of possibility.Bird flu virus originated in Hong Kong in 1997 in wild birds and spread to domestic species. So far Vietnam and Indonesia have been hit the hardest, causing governments to order millions of domestic fowl to be killed to prevent its spread. Health officials are concerned the virus could mutate to a form that could pass easily from human to human. According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, 241 cases of human bird flu and 141 deaths have been confirmed as of Aug. 9.What worries public health officials is that, like the flu pandemic in 1918 that killed upwards of 40 million people worldwide, including 500,000 people in the United States, this new strain could have a devastating effect because people have no natural immunity.bird flu: see page A2As presented by Hilley, the fictitious scenario involved two nurses who traveled to Thailand and returned to the county with several birds hidden in their luggage. Several of the birds sickened and died and so, eventually, did the two nurses, but only after triggering an epidemic of bird flu in the county.Hilley walked the group through a series of questions to test how they would respond to the disaster that could, if it really happened, sicken about 14,000 people in the county and cause about 300 deaths.What would trigger a countywide emergency response in this case would be a large number of people with flu-like symptoms arriving at either of the county’s hospitals requesting treatment, and numbers of animals also sickening and dying.But as more and more people became sick, basic services would break down.In such an emergency, a centralized place of operations would be established at the county administration building in Glenwood Springs. The room is equipped with phone, radio and Internet lines. From there a small group would coordinate the efforts of law enforcement and fire departments. The public health office also has a plan in place to deal with health emergencies.Still, critical situations would soon arise.Valley View Hospital has 80 beds and Grand River Medical Center, 25. Both have plans for increasing bed space – including using the hallways – and for isolating people with communicable diseases. Quarantine and isolation orders would also be issued by the public health department and enforced by the police and sheriff’s offices.The biggest challenge all agencies would have to meet would be an increasing shortage of manpower as people became sick. One of the ways to meet that shortage, which Garfield County is now addressing, is to identify essential personnel and make sure, if they were ill and needed to be isolated, they have a home computer that could communicate with county administrators still on the job.Communication between local, state and federal agencies would be crucial in a pandemic. “You’ve got to listen to everybody and everybody’s concerns or you’ll miss something,” Hilley said.Since it’s unlikely police and sheriff’s deputies could effectively enforce a quarantine in the county, people must be convinced to adhere to it voluntarily. That could mean getting the word out about how to diagnose your own symptoms, determine if you need to go to the hospital, and keep from spreading the disease.”Information is going to be the key,” Hilley said.If such a disaster were to take place, county officials are up to the challenge.”We’ve had incidents,” such as the Storm King and Coal Seam fires, said county emergency operations manager Jim Sears. “We’ve always worked well with each together. … Our working relationships are strong.”Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. 510dgray@postindependent.comBreakout: In case of emergency, whether it’s a natural disaster or major disease outbreak, the best defense is to plan ahead. Emergency officials recommend everyone have a home preparedness kit, with enough supplies to last an individual or family at least 72 hours. Kits should contain:• 2 quarts of drinking water per day per person; 1 gallon of water per day for cooking and sanitary needs• Canned food, peanut butter and jelly, granola bars• First aid kit• Battery-powered radio and/or TV• Extra batteries• Matches in a waterproof containerTo see a complete list of items of a preparedness kit go to http://www.readycolorado.com.


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